LINKS LETTER, APRIL 2004

NOTHING IS BEYOND BELIEF

By Angela Stanford with Jeff Hopper

It was almost two years ago now that I was pretty certain my professional golf days were over. Try as I might, I hadn’t been able to make it work like I wanted. And in that I had reached the ripe old age of 24, I figured my opportunity for success was long past.

There was just one problem. I was going to have to tell my parents.

I was about to head to Dublin, Ohio, for the Wendy’s Championship for Children when I reached my decision. A week after that, I was supposed to go on to the British Open, but I was ready to forsake my whole schedule and call it quits.

First, although it took most of my nerve to do it, I called home.

My parents could tell that something wasn’t quite right, so I came right out and told them in the only way I knew how. “I’m ready to come,” I said.

My parents are terrific people, and they did everything they could to sound supportive. They said, “If that’s what you want, you need to play this game for your own reasons, and not for anybody else.”

That probably wasn’t easy for them to say, and it wasn’t too easy for me to believe, actually. Or maybe I was just expecting them to be upset, so I couldn’t figure out why they weren’t.

My parents have always worked extremely hard from the moment they could start working. A lot of their motivation, I believe, was to provide a nice life for me and my younger brother, Ryan. We’d been given a lot of opportunities athletically and educationally, and that was because of my parents’ willingness to work for that on our behalf.

I think my parents saw that the career I had on the LPGA Tour, which had started in 2001, was going to be a much easier life for me than what they had lived. And I had a feeling they were upset that maybe I was going to come home and end up working hard every day of my life.

I wouldn’t have considered that the worst thing. I respect my parents very much, and they have taught me through their example to respect all people who do get up every day and work. Sometimes, working only six or seven months of the year even seemed wrong to me.

But I could understand why my parents might be disappointed, even if they tried to be supportive.

When I missed the cut the week before the Wendy’s Championship, I flew home with one thing on my mind: I wanted to go to church.

I was no stranger to church, so this wasn’t just some yearning to squeeze in a little religion to take away the aching dissatisfaction I was facing.

When I was just five years old, I had pulled on my mom’s dress during church and said, “I’m ready for this.”

This was Jesus Christ. And I wanted to give my life to Him.

I know, five years old is very young. And I’ve always known how blessed I was not to have to go through some really difficult stuff like some of my friends have before realizing that I needed God.

But here I was 20 years later, having pretty much always known the difference between right and wrong, wondering out loud whether I was living the right life for me.

It wasn’t the first time I had questioned my love for golf. In high school, where I had started out as a competitive player during my freshman year, I let my game slip as a sophomore and missed what should have been an easy step for me: qualifying to go to the state tournament in Texas.

I wasn’t playing very well and I wasn’t putting a lot of time into it. My dad came down hard on me for that attitude. It was probably the hardest he’s ever been on me. But it was just what I needed to wake me up.

That night I got on my knees and talked to God. I said, “Whatever this is supposed to be, it’s in Your hands. I’m going to work hard, I’m going to do whatever it takes, but You take this where You want me to go.”

From that moment forward, golf became much easier.

Until that week in 2002.

Coming home to Fort Worth, I think I was placing myself in God’s hands again. Did He really want me to continue my career?

That Sunday morning after I had missed the cut, I went to church with my mom, and the pastor talked about not quitting. If you’ve ever sat in a church service and thought the pastor was preaching right at you, I’m sure you know how I felt that morning. I sat there, saying to myself over and over, Are you serious?

The pastor had three points. The first was that you can’t quit, because too many people are pulling for you. The second was that we carry around a lot of baggage that keeps us from running hard for God. In response to that, his third point was that we need to keep our eyes on Jesus.

I sat there thinking, Oh, my goodness. He has hit on every single thing that I’m going through right now.

As we walked out of the service, my mom asked the obvious question, “Are you still going to quit?”

I said, “Well, you know, probably not.”

What I had come to realize in that one Sunday morning was that I was out on tour for all the wrong reasons. I had always been a happy person, but out on tour, I was depressed when I got to the golf course. It didn’t make sense.

But now I realized what this was all about. I wasn’t playing just for God like I had in the past.

It may sound kind of silly, but in high school I had always pictured God as something like my caddie. Or He was sitting in heaven, just smiling, watching me play golf.

He was my audience. And I played like it.

But on tour, I had lost sight of all that. I got wrapped up in making a check, or figuring out when I would be done so I could make my flight out—I was worried about all sorts of different things. And I forgot why I was playing.

I made my way to Dublin with a whole new mindset. I was going to have a better attitude. I was going to focus on simply playing for God again.

I just made the cut in Dublin, then went on to play the British Open. There I finished thirteenth.

I took that next week off and while I was doing some thinking that week, I realized, Wow, He has me out here for a reason. He’s got to be using me some way.

Yet this was only the beginning. I didn’t want to quit anymore, but I would never have known what was coming. It began that summer, with a second place finish at the Betsy King Classic, and continued into last year.

I was rejuvenated, but by mid-June 2003, I was pretty tired, too. I had played way too much golf, but I kept going. In Rochester, New York, I qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open. I had missed the cut in the Open each of the three previous years, but I was headed back.

That qualifier took too much out of me, though, and I missed the cut in Rochester. I flew home to put some of the previous weeks behind me. I had fallen down to the middle of the pack again after my high water mark the summer before, and some frustration was creeping back into my game.

When I returned the next week to play the ShopRite Classic in Atlantic City, I was refreshed. I told my caddie, “I’m going to think different this week. I’m going to try hard to play one shot at a time. I’m not going to worry about the outcome. I’m not going to worry about the results. Let’s see what happens.”

Wednesday night before the tournament, I was talking to my instructor, Amy Fox. I told her that I was growing impatient waiting for good things to happen.

She said, “Angela, you’re going to win this year. I don’t know when it is, but I know you’re going to win.”

That was a nice vote of confidence, but my caddie was giving me grief about not being more excited about playing. He was encouraging me to go on and play the Evian Masters in Paris a couple of weeks later. You get paid just for showing up to the Evian. But I was not interested. I told him, “You know, if I would just take care of business over here, I wouldn’t have to worry about going over there.”

With all this build-up, you can probably make a pretty good guess as to what happened. I won. That week. The wait was over.

But I hardly had a chance to enjoy it, which has probably always been the case with the player who wins the week before the Open. I was bombarded with questions about winning at Pumpkin Ridge and I was thinking, Whoa! Let’s not think about winning. Let’s think about making the cut.

So at the Open I tried again to focus on only one shot at a time. It may be competitive golf’s most tired cliche, but it makes a big difference when you don’t get ahead of yourself. Just take care of business as it comes, and let God do His thing.

I know that God orchestrates every day of my life, but that week in Oregon last July, I believe He was really in control. I mean, by the time the weekend was over, not only had I made the cut, but I found myself in a three-way playoff with Hilary Lunke and Kelly Robbins. Part of what was crazy about that was that Hilary had never won a tournament before, and up until the previous week, neither had I. Now we were about to play off for the biggest prize in our sport.

Most everyone who knows the game knows what happened that Sunday afternoon. Kelly was the leader in the clubhouse, one shot ahead of me and tied with Hilary (we were the last twosome). The last hole was a par-5, reachable for the longer hitters and a birdie hole for us all. I knew if I could make a birdie I’d tie Kelly, but the question was, what would Hilary do?

I left my approach about 20 feet below the hole, but Hilary knocked it inside me. No matter what, she would be putting for the win. My only chance was to make my putt and to have her miss.

I made it. She missed. We were headed to the playoff on Monday.

An 18-hole playoff leaves all kinds of room for jumping forward and falling back, of course. But that Monday, Kelly and I were busy playing catchup, as Hilary pulled three shots ahead early on.

But by the middle of the back nine, I had caught Hilary, and things looked good until I hit my second shot left at the par-4 seventeenth. The ball wound up in the bunker, and I couldn’t get up-and-down.

The eighteenth would require a repeat. I would have to beat Hilary by a shot to keep this thing going, by two to win. By the time our approach shots found the green, the deja vu image was more eerie. Again I would putt first, this time from the fringe, about 25 feet below the hole.

My putt was perfect. It is just the most amazing thing to think even now that lightning struck for me two days in a row. Looking over the putt, I thought, No way. There’s too much break, too much green, too many people, and it’s for too much. When the ball went in the hole again, and I had closed with another birdie, I truly could not believe it.

But neither could I believe that I was really going anywhere. This time, I was sure that Hilary would make her putt to win. When she stepped up and knocked her putt right in the middle of the hole, I was not at all surprised.

When it was all done, somebody asked me, “How does it feel? Are you upset that you lost?”

My answer to everyone since then has been no. Here’s why: Hilary is just like me. She has placed her life in God’s hands. That is bigger than whether I win or lose.

I won in Atlantic City for a reason. Hilary won in Oregon for a reason. They are reasons that maybe only God will ever know, but that is what happens when you give your game—and your life—to Him. There is always something bigger than we realize going on.

ANGELA’S ANSWERS

Do you recommend sports scholarships as a way for girls to go to college?
Oh, I think so. I think it doesn’t matter what level, Division II, Division III, or Division I. I don’t think the school really matters anymore. All the educations out there are awesome. I think if you can go playing sports, it teaches you so much more about working with people, having some discipline, and staying focused.

How did your success in junior tournaments and college translate to the Tour?
You know, my dad and I, we never talked about professional golf. It was always, let’s get a scholarship, get a scholarship. I think that’s why when I did graduate from college (at TCU), I was a little unsure about the Tour, because it was never a goal. It was never a goal to be on Tour, it was just to get an education. Then you can do whatever you want to do.

What keeps you focused on Tour?
This might sound really weird, but it’s the volunteers. I feel for those volunteers. I try to talk to them, I try to say hi to them, because it is almost like they are giving themselves for us to play. I mean, they are giving their time, they are giving their money, just to stand there all day and hold up a “Quiet Please” sign. [For players] it’s like everything is me, me, me. All you have to do is take one look at a volunteer.

How do you keep winning and losing in perspective?
I’m probably one of the most competitive people I know. That’s a challenge for me because I need to learn how to tone it down sometimes. I get so frustrated, so fired up, when I’m not playing my best that I think it hurts me. So I think anybody out there wants to win, and I think you have to be focused on that to be out there. You’ve got to want to be the best. But I don’t think I want that to become my identity. I hear people say, “Oh, that’s Angela Stanford” or “Can we get you to sign this?” and I’m thinking, But I’m just like you. We’re all the same. This is just something I do.

You’re a big sports fan. What are some of your favorite sports memories as a fan?
My first of all would be that I got to see Barry Bonds hit his 500th home run. I was in the stands at PacBell (now AT&T Park). I know he has hit 600 and he’s going to live on to hit however many, but just to be there with all those flash bulbs, and you’re getting to see history, was pretty cool. Second would have to be—I love baseball—last fall’s playoffs. I’m a huge Cubs fan. I loved Ryne Sandberg. Watching last year’s playoffs was pretty cool. Disappointing, but cool.

COPYRIGHT 2004 LINKS PLAYERS INTERNATIONAL

  • Angela Stanford

    5 LPGA Tour Wins: 2003 ShopRite LPGA Classic, 2008 Bell Micro Classic, 2008 Lorena Ochoa Invitational, 2009 SBS Open, 2012 HSBC Women’s Champions